Voters mirror Congress in disagreement about budget cuts

Posted March 31, 2011, at 12:24 a.m.

AURORA, Colo. — For weeks, President Barack Obama has been locked in a fierce budget fight with Republican lawmakers demanding big cuts to slash the federal deficit. Without a deal, much of the federal government could soon shut down.

Here in the Denver suburbs, the battleground portion of a battleground state, agreement among voters on where to cut, what to cut, how much and how quickly seems just as elusive.

Virtually everyone says the deficit and ballooning national debt are a problem. “It’s leaving my daughter and her kids a huge burden I’m not sure we can overcome,” said Heather Schoech, 45, a teacher and registered Libertarian, echoing the words of many interviewed across the Rocky Mountain sprawl of shopping malls and earth-tone subdivisions.

But consensus abruptly ends there, suggesting that chopping the budget and reducing the deficit, while popular as a general proposition, are not nearly as appealing when it comes to the particulars — especially when people see the ax swinging their way.

Carly Wilson is a political independent and recent college graduate who calls herself “fiscally very Republican.” She was pleased when the GOP took over the House in January, but she has second thoughts now that they want to cut funding for the arts. Where would Wilson slice? “They need to deal with Medicare and Medicaid,” said the 24-year-old dance instructor.

Across town, behind the counter of his used-book store, Ernest Roy said he too was glad the House went Republican. “I was hoping they would put a slamming, screaming halt to all this undue spending,” said Roy, an independent and 20-year Air Force veteran. “We’re spending our country into bankruptcy, and that’s not good.”

But, he said, lawmakers need to keep their hands off Medicare. At 75, his health is good, but his wife has had problems and without the federal program, “We wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t own a home. I wouldn’t have anything,” he said.

Colorado, which Obama carried in 2008, is sure to be heavily contested in the 2012 presidential race. The currents shaping that incipient campaign as well as the Washington budget debate were evident in more than three dozen conversations with voters in the well-tended communities of Aurora, Lakewood and Arvada. Already, the fiery rhetoric of last year’s campaigns has given way to concer ns about the fiscal fallout.

Aurora and its environs, which Obama carried in 2008, are emblematic of both the shaky economic recovery and the cutbacks to come if GOP lawmakers succeed in stripping tens of billions of dollars from the federal budget.

The worst of the Great Recession appears to have passed, if not the anxieties it created. Business has improved in the last few months and continues to pick up, said a construction manager, an insurance broker, a commercial real estate appraiser, a mail-order wine dealer and the owner of a wholesale flooring company. Raytheon, the big defense and technology company, has a huge sign on th e lawn of its Aurora campus: “Now Hiring Engineers.”

At the same time, unemployment hit a record 9.9 percent in the Denver metro area in January. (That was partly because more people returned to the labor market, seeking jobs.) The news is filled with stories of state and local budget cuts, teacher layoffs and possible elimination of a much-loved program that sent generations of kids to the mountains for a week of study.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, which added 600 jobs in the last three years and spun off thousands more in the private sector, could face drastic cuts under the House GOP plan. Local police and firefighters stand to lose tens of thousands of dollars for training and equipment. Jefferson County, in the western suburbs, may be forced to eliminate full-day kindergarten for 1,200 low- to middle-income students.

Given that mixed outlook, Sherald Daniels, 52, a Democrat, spoke for many when he expressed a heavily guarded optimism. After losing his accounting job and searching nine months for work, he landed a position handling billing for a group of doctors. “The country seems to be headed in the right direction,” he said, but with gas prices rising and international crises raging, “there are still a lot of things that can get it off track.”

The deficit, he volunteered, is one of them. “I’m all for cutting,” Daniels said, but he thinks Republicans have been reckless, especially in trying to slice funds from education. Cut the military budget, he suggested: Leave Iraq and Afghanistan and put the savings toward the deficit.

Others assumed similar partisan positions. Democrats blamed the deficit on President George W. Bush and called for reinstating higher tax rates on the rich and closing corporate tax loopholes. Republicans disparaged Obama and blamed the deficit on illegal immigrants, funding for public broadcasting and the year-old national health care bill.

“Stop wasting money on crap nobody wants,” Republican Thomas Maxwell, 61, a casino worker from Lakewood, said from the cab of his blue Ford pickup before stomping on the gas and pulling away.

If the politics of budget-balancing is hard, the reason for that is simple.

As Daniels put it, “Yes, the deficit needs to be cut. But it’s difficult to say where. That’s why it’s still a problem.”

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